Seeing San Diego

Sparkling like a multi-faceted gem in a magnificent setting, San Diego entices travelers with its numerous attractions, glorious weather and unique features , all easily experienced by those staying for just a day or longer.

Most people experience Southern California on four-night cruises to Baja, Mexican Riviera excursions, or as the starting or ending point for Panama Canal and Hawaii trips. Either way, visitors are in for a treat from "America's Finest City," as locals call it.

Seaport Village
Unlike Los Angeles, San Diego's cruise terminal is much closer to the city; it sits directly west of downtown, offering visitors spectacular views of gleaming skyscrapers, bobbing yachts in the bay and purple-hued mountains far to the east. All of this makes it an easy port for experiencing San Diego's attractions either on foot, through organized tours or via public transportation.

The cruise terminal is about four miles from the San Diego Airport, one block from the Amtrak station; long-term parking is available at the cruise terminal. Those wishing to stay overnight should seek out hotels downtown or on nearby Harbor Island. The one closest to the dock is the Holiday Inn Bayside, directly across the street.

Bazaar del 0mundo
Getting around town is relatively simple. A complimentary shuttle available at the cruise terminal can drop tourists at the bayside theme shopping area of Seaport Village or the metropolitan mall, Horton Plaza. At Seaport Village, one can take in the spectacular bay views, framed by the sky blue-colored Coronado Bay Bridge leading to Coronado Island, home of the famed Hotel Del Coronado. Quaint shops designed with the appearance of a small fishing village tempt travelers with souvenirs and unique gift items; a selection of restaurants is also available. From Seaport Village, take a short walk and stroll among the new condominium developments and antique malls in the surrounding area.

Horton Plaza
Those who choose Horton Plaza instead will enjoy all the stores a shopaholic longs for, as well as numerous eateries in the mall's food court. Horton Plaza , now known as Westfield Shopping Town , was the cornerstone of downtown San Diego's redevelopment in the 1980s. Replacing dilapidated structures and a park frequented by transients, Horton Plaza was the initiating gamble that brought the renaissance to San Diego's urban core.

Gaslamp District
Using the free shuttle to the shopping center, cruisers can take a walking tour of downtown's picturesque Gaslamp Quarter. The eight-block-long area is bound by Broadway to the north and Harbor Drive to the south; and by 6th Avenue to the east and 4th avenue to the west. Here you will find 90 restaurants, a host of nightclubs, and Victorian architecture dating from 1830s that was saved from the wrecking ball to become the home to art galleries and the like. This is where San Diegans go for a night on the town, or a memorable afternoon of shopping, dining and browsing.

Maritime Museum
For those who want to stay close to the cruise terminal, the San Diego Maritime Museum is one block north of the dock. Home to the 241-year-old Star of India , the world's oldest active ship , as well as five other historic craft, the maritime museum allows visitors to climb aboard and experience sea travel through the ages -- including the 1898 steamboat Berkeley, which traversed San Francisco Bay for 60 years.

One of the best ways to get around San Diego is the extensive trolley system that runs from the Mexican border through downtown and all the way east to San Diego State University. For $5, you can purchase a day pass that allows a multitude of stops and return trips. They're available from vending machines at a host of trolley stops and stations , many an easy walk from the cruise terminal or Horton Plaza.

Old Town
One of the most popular stops along the trolley route is Old Town State Historic Park, where San Diego's roots began. Numerous buildings dating to the rancho period of California now house restaurants, shops and more. The Spanish-flavored Bazaar del Mundo shopping area lets visitors stroll along flower-covered verandas as they soak in the local color, while several top-notch Mexican restaurants tempt those seeking a spicy flavor.

Whaley House
For a paranormal experience, stop into the Whaley House Museum. The two-story Greek revival structure is one of the finest brick homes in Southern California. Built by the Whaley family, the house was used for a time as the city's courthouse. From its stint in that capacity, as well as home to the Whaleys for more than 100 years, the house is rumored to have taken on some permanent residents. Tales of ghostly figures, disembodied footsteps, and other eerie sights and sounds have led it to be ranked as one of the most haunted places in America.

Cruise guests may also opt to take formal tours through their cruise line. One of the most popular is the outing to nearby Balboa Park and the famous San Diego Zoo. Nestled on 1,200 tree-studded acres, the park is a highlight of San Diego. Fifteen museums , including art, natural history, antique automobiles and science , encircle the center of Balboa Park, El Prado. The Spanish Colonial architecture found throughout the park dates from the city's Panama Exposition in 1915-1916. Saved from the wrecking ball, and upgraded for earthquake safety, these buildings provide scenic viewpoints throughout the park.

Meanwhile, nothing surpasses the appeal of watching the antics of animals at the San Diego Zoo. Sited on 100-acres tied to Balboa Park, the zoo began after the Panama Exposition, when numerous display animals remained after the fair closed its doors. Winding through a vast canyon, the zoo boasts many natural enclosures, with few fences between tourists and animals. The panda exhibit is one of the most popular. For those wishing to save their foot power, bus tours of the zoo are an attractive alternative.

For seeing aquatic animals, San Diego's Sea World is a "must" tour. Home to sharks, penguins, dolphin and killer whales, the marine park offers visitors displays, exhibits and a number of shows featuring Sea World's aquatic staff. Be forewarned: Sit too close to the front of the audience and you might enjoy a whale- or dolphin-induced shower. But with the city's pleasant Mediterranean type climate, even that soaking is pleasant.

San Diego offers visitors so many options that it is impossible to see everything in a day or two. It's this appeal that keeps visitors coming back. Peruse the following links for more details on options that meet your interests, and get ready to enjoy one of the gems of the Pacific.

Recommended web links: - San Diego Convention and Visitors Bureau - Seaport Village - Full information on Balboa Park attractions - Details on shopping, restaurants and Gaslamp Quarter tours - San Diego Maritime Museum - Sea World park information - Complete visitor info for the zoo -- what to see and do in Old Town - Historical and visitor details for the Whaley House - SD Trolley info

(Contributor Harry Martin, a native San Diegan, is the moderator for the Mexico and G/L message boards on Cruisemates.)

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